A truck accident on the Bruce Highway became a common occurrence on the horror road. Photo: John McCutcheon / Sunshine Coast Daily
A truck accident on the Bruce Highway became a common occurrence on the horror road. Photo: John McCutcheon / Sunshine Coast Daily

Deadly road probe was blocked at every turn

IT was a deadly secret that turned Queensland's Bruce Highway into a killing field.

More than 55 people lost their lives on the 64 kilometre Cooroy to Curra stretch in nine years.

If that wasn't bad enough, 295 people were put in hospital with injuries following 840 crashes between 2000 and 2008.

There was something clearly wrong.

A conversation overheard at one of the crash scenes by a source led to a special investigation that sparked fury among government officials.

But ultimately that investigation, and the persistence of journalists at the Daily and the Gympie Times, led to the announcement of hundreds of millions of dollars in road funding.

For years, Main Roads had maintained there were no links between the use of a stone mastic asphalt surface and crashes.

But the conversation at the road scene of one of the crashes told a different story - one in which authorities knew they had a problem.

The problem was not just confined to that stretch of the Bruce Highway either.

In 2007, a Daily investigation revealed more than 30 cars had lost control in a year on the off ramp leading from the Bruce Highway at Tanawha to the Sunshine Motorway.

It remains one of the most used roads for tourists and residents entering the Sunshine Coast.

News of that toll came after a 51-year-old mother died in hospital after her Ford Falcon slid off the road.

The woman was standing behind her car making a call for help, when a four-wheel-drive also fishtailed on the slippery surface.

The Toyota Landcruiser left the road and hit the woman's car with enough force to send it up the embankment, pinning her under the wheels.

The state government originally chose stone mastic asphalt for its durability, but the surface was found to be less porous then its traditional open-graded asphalt and has been linked to water build up.

Bruce Highway Upgrade. / Cooroy to Curra. (L-R) Local Member Peter Wellington, Deputy PM Warren Truss and Minister for Main Roads and Road Safety Mark Bailey at the Upgrade. Photo Geoff Potter / Noosa News
Bruce Highway Upgrade. / Cooroy to Curra. (L-R) Local Member Peter Wellington, Deputy PM Warren Truss and Minister for Main Roads and Road Safety Mark Bailey at the Upgrade. Photo Geoff Potter / Noosa News

The surface was blamed for a series of wet-weather crashes on the Bruce Highway at Federal. It was eventually replaced at both locations after a campaign by the Sunshine Coast Daily and the Gympie Times.

Even after the crash in 2007, Main Roads officials maintained the same line.

"The ramp is used by 3800 vehicles a day, which equates to almost 1.4 million vehicles a year,'' a spokesman said at the time, saying there were no plans to replace the surface.

Eye-witness accounts from that crash were chillingly familiar to the descriptions given of a spate of deadly accidents on the Bruce Highway at Federal after the stone mastic asphalt surface was laid there in 2002.

Among the victims at federal were a well-loved paramedic. The Daily's story on that tragedy won it Australia's highest journalism honour, a Walkley Award.

Yet, despite the obvious public safety interest, our efforts to obtain data, information and adequate responses from officials were continually thwarted.

As we reported at the time, stone mastic asphalt had been banned from use in some high-speed roads in Europe, with Ireland limiting speed on SMA roads to just under 50kmh after a series of accidents.

In 2005, Main Roads commissioned an independent report into its use of stone mastic asphalt, the Kennedy-Troutbeck report.

The report stated "it is concluded that stone mastic asphalt is a safe surface to use … the use of SMA does not show any systemic safety issues".

The families of those who lost their lives on the Bruce Highway would no doubt have a very different view.

Your right to know campaign: All of us should be suspicious when the government is introducing laws that mean we don't know what's going on.
Your right to know campaign: All of us should be suspicious when the government is introducing laws that mean we don't know what's going on.

The campaign to upgrade the Bruce Highway highlights the vital work that journalists do in bringing information to light and the need to ensure Australia's right to information is protected.

That work can literally mean the difference between life and death.